All posts by Jesse

The Album of the Year: St. Vincent by St. Vincent

Our album of the year is St. Vincent by St. Vincent. Five of us put together wildly different album lists, and this was the common ground, appearing on every single one, often near the top. We were all at least somewhat familiar with St. Vincent’s work before this year, but her self-titled record blows her past, merely good albums off whatever planet she’s from. As gratifying as it’s been to see female pop artists completely take over the charts over the past couple of years, it’s hard not to see St. Vincent as the new-millennium female pop star (which is to say: pop star) for the smart set. Below, Marisa, Sara, Rob, and Jesse piece together what we love about this album from its eleven wonderful songs.

The 2014 Album of the Year: St. Vincent

1. Rattlesnake

From her robotic live show choregoraphy to the growth she shows on St. Vincent, it’s clear that Annie Clark enjoyed her time working with David Byrne. I may have mentioned this before, but I am big into opening tracks. I probably read too much into the chioce of “Rattlesnake” as the leadoff to this record, but who cares when the song is this good. Twilight Zone paranoia fights it way over layers of synths and guitars with a bouncy beat to boot (and, maybe most unnerving of all, apparently based on a true story). It’s like so many tracks on this album: so many great things at once. – Rob

2. Birth in Reverse

St. Vincent is by far my favorite artist prone to adding “in America” at the end of a phrase. I mean, that sounds like a go-to parody move for making your lyrics sound as all-encompassingly pompous as possible. And yet in “Birth in Reverse,” for my money the catchiest song on this record, it functions more as a locator. The song opens with a description of ordinary household activities (of a sort), and the chorus’s description of what she sees “through the blinds,” “a birth in reverse in America,” feels like a zoom-out to a Google Maps view of where-ever the hell you bide your downtime when you’re the lady from St. Vincent. (Bonus points for the phrase “birth in reverse” supposedly coming from Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America.) The view from St. Vincent’s window sounds especially jittery because the music moves at a relentless pace that sounds like a workout video going amok. Whether it’s making a sweeping statement about America or, potentially worse, making a sweeping statement about how we all view the world through a digital lens (see track 5), St. Vincent makes opportunities for pomposity sound palatable, and palatable things sound extremely fucking weird. – Jesse

3. Prince Johnny

True fact: I am the last one to turn in my St. Vincent write-up. That’s because I’ve spent a lot of time trying to sort through all my feelings about “Prince Johnny,” apart from the feeling that I love it. She starts off the song by saying, “You’re kind, but you’re not simple.” The same can be said for the song: It’s pleasant, but it’s not simple. That’s why music writers have twisted themselves into knots trying to describe it, layering on these really purple words, like calling it a “a luxuriant, rhythmic ballad with a melancholic, detailed narrative.” I’m not criticizing. It needs this kind of description. I would add these equally flowery words: haunting, longingly, soaring, enigmatic, elegiac,  and heartbreaking. Kind-but-simple words do not do justice.

When I saw St. Vincent at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland this year, we got there late and had a less-than-ideal position in the crowd. Much of my view was obstructed for most of the concert. But, when she played “Prince Johnny,” she climbed atop of a tower of amps and sang it from far above the crowd. I understand that Clark is known for crazy stage antics, but I’m glad she made sure that “Prince Johnny” got a big moment in the show, even though it’s a quiet song. – Marisa

St. Vincent 2

4. Huey Newton

I’ve always thought of politics as incidental to St. Vincent’s music. It’s certainly there, as in the Strange Mercy closer “Year of the Tiger,” but usually it’s subtextual instead of foregrounded. But she must have picked up on something in the air because in a year marked by racial strife and protests against police brutality she fortuitously named a song for one of the founders of the Black Panthers. Newton had no lack of trouble in his short life as an activist: he was jailed (and later acquitted) for the murder of a police officer, and eventually was shot and killed by a member of the Black Guerilla Family, a prison and street gang in Oakland, in a neighborhood he had once helped revitalize. St. Vincent’s music often walks the line between beauty and insanity and nowhere is that more evident than the brilliantly structured song that bears his name. The opening verses, unfolding over a spacey jazz beat as St. Vincent’s voice reaches higher into her register, are ominous and nonsensical, conjuring images of “cardboard cutthroats” and “fuckless porn sharks.” Then it makes a brutal break, a jagged guitar riff crashing in as she shifts into righteous fury, literally shredding everything that’s come before. We’re in “perpetual night” now among motherless creatures and misfits and she’s not afraid to leave us there. Though no explicit political statement is made, it’s pretty clear which lot St. Vincent throws herself in with and it’s not those who are “safe, safe, and safest.” – Sara

5. Digital Witness

If there can be said to be a through line in St. Vincent’s album it may well be a rejection of our current cultural consumption, or at least a pointed critique. Many of the songs sound like observational transmissions from an alien being and that hits its zenith with “Digital Witness.” Is there any mantra that speaks more to the anxieties of the modern age, and damns them more, than “If I can’t show it, if you can’t see me, what’s the point of doing anything?” The popularity of Facebook, Instagram, and all the other social media sites we congregate on has turned us all into digital witnesses of one another, less living life than performing it, and St. Vincent means to wrench us away. “I want all of your mind,” she commands, and the song is catchy enough that we’ll readily give it to her. The instrumentation bears some of the hallmarks of her recent collaboration with David Byrne with its swaggering guitar and bright stuttering horns. There’s something pleasingly artificial about the sound, which ends up embracing the synthetic texture of modern life as much as it sends it up. Any musician worth her salt is hyper aware of how she presents herself to her audience and for all her otherworldliness St. Vincent is no different. “Won’t somebody sell me back to me?” she asks at the song’s end but if anyone is in control here, it’s her. – Sara

6. I Prefer Your Love

Clark, queen of the slow jam! It’s a shame that mixtape-making isn’t the way that young people court each other anymore. “I Prefer Your Love” would be a good song to have stashed away for a deal-sealing cassette. Even if the intended could resist the “I prefer your love to Jesus” opening lyric on account of silliness, there’s no way the “All the good in me is because of you” wouldn’t work. Sorry, kids. You’ll never find anything as beautiful on Tindr. – Marisa

7. Regret

Annie Clark claims she’s thirty two years old, but it’s more likely that she’s an ageless visitor from another planet. The clues go beyond her increasing comfort in loosening her human façade and dressing more like one of our new otherworldly overlords. Take “Regret” for example. There is a level of reflection and knowing world-weariness to these lyrics that I just don’t see coming from someone my little sister’s age. Musically, she has experimented more with her sound than most rock stars do during their entire career. “Reget” sees her try out a bunch of new guitar tones and play with rhythm by having the bass line in the chorus go against everything. She also shows off her vocal range here as well just for fun. “Regret” is so next-level, there’s no way she hasn’t been secretly working on her music for at least decades. I bow down to our new ruler. – Rob

8. Bring Me Your Loves















9. Psychopath

I have listened to this album countless times. I have listened to the Lady Gaga song “Edge of Glory” exactly as many times as I’ve heard it in a public place since it was released (I would estimate about ten). Yet every single time I hear St. Vincent sing “…’cause I’m on the edge of a heart attack” in this song, her intonation leads me to expect her to sing “on the edge of glory.” This is embarrassing because St. Vincent is vastly superior to Lady Gaga and annoying because it sometimes actually manages to get “Edge of Glory” into my head, but also, finally, a useful point of comparison, because Annie Clark, as St. Vincent, does all of the weird, inventive, artsy shapeshifting that Stefani Germanotta does as Lady Gaga. Hell, the transition from the stuttering verses of “Psychopath” to the lusher orchestration of its chorus and back again to minimalist beats and angular guitar is more dynamic than most of Gaga’s costumed-up club boilerplate. Of course, 2014 is kind of a silly time to be picking on Lady Gaga; St. Vincent makes it plentifully easy to just listen to something better.

10. Every Tear Disappears

This song is also very good, but instead of writing about it, I wanted to share with you a sampling of some of Annie’s magnificent hairstyles from this year. – Rob

11. Severed Crossed Fingers

A lot of St. Vincent, the album, is hepped-up and robo-dance-y; even the slow jams feel like they’re about to explode into something more menacing (and by virtue of being followed by “Huey Newton” and “Regret,” they do). But the album closer feels like the St. Vincent version of a torch song or a Broadway finale. I know those things sound (a.) contradictory and (b.) not particularly descriptive of a song with so much evisceration imagery. But can’t you just imagine Annie Clark in a semi-robotic pose with a handheld microphone, arm outstretched to the crowd as she warbles matter-of-factly yet emotively about her crossed fingers lying in rubble? (I have to imagine it, because the two times I saw St. Vincent in concert this year, she neglected to play this song.) Lush but unsentimental, glorious and strange: this is St. Vincent closing up a near-perfect record. – Jesse

The Top Five Best Albums of 2014

It sounded like a lame joke I might make to myself or on Twitter: Rolling Stone has thought it over, and they’ve decided that the best, most interesting, and/or most inspiring albums of 2014 are: the one that U2 gave away for free, and the one that Bruce Springsteen pulled together from a decade of outtakes. I like U2 and I’ve got love for latter-day Springsteen. But the question remains:

Don’t you think we can do better?

Not every music publication’s best-music list is as lame as Rolling Stone‘s, of course, but there is a certain familiarity and timidity in a whole lot of them. The kind of over-the-top poptimism that gives Taylor Swift a lot of bonus points for making an album that isn’t unlistenable and that a lot of people bought. Or the kind of inclusiveness that insists you need to count down 50 top albums of the year, which is to say mention a lot without really calling anything way better than anything else. I understand that a crap-ton of albums are released every year. But is a list of 50 a best-of, or is it an abridged chronology?

So here’s the music nerds to tell you what’s what. Rob, Marisa, Sara, Craig and I submitted fairly disparate Best Albums lists and rallied around a few top vote-getters to create our rock-solid top five. We’re pretty sure it’s the best one on the internet. So there’s nothing left to do but enjoy it. And then argue with us like we’re Rolling Stone.
Continue reading The Top Five Best Albums of 2014

TRACK MARKS BEST OF 2014: “Lazerray” by TV on the Radio

This week, writers are recounting the best music of 2014. Today’s Track Marks focus on individual songs from albums that didn’t make our collective top five, but did appear on our individual best-album ballots.

TV on the Radio seem like super cool guys; are they secret sci-fi/fantasy nerds? What “Wolf Like Me” did for werewolves, TV on the Radio’s “Lazerray” does for lasers; the band clearly gets most amped when it’s singing about stuff that sounds like they’re free-associating off of the DuckTales opening credits. I feel like with all the talk about the tragic death of bassist Gerard Smith and Seeds being their attempt at a healing comeback, the driving ass-kickery of this song has been kinda slept on, even though it’s up there with “Wolf” and “Caffeinated Consciousness” as some of the most awesome stuff TV on the Radio has ever put recorded. It’s OK that the rest of Seeds doesn’t sound like this, because it’s quite beautiful, and how could anything really sound like this for a whole album? Those sweet horn accents that come in around the 2:15 mark sound all the sweeter because they come in there like it’s the only point where they might be able to get a word in edgewise. When I saw TV on the Radio over the summer, they were kicking ass throughout, but when “Wolf Like Me” came on, people lost their shit and started moshing like twenty rows back. I can’t imagine this won’t happen with “Lazerray” in the future, especially if solar flares can mosh.

TRACK MARKS BEST OF 2014: “Goshen ’97” by Strand of Oaks

This week, writers are recounting the best music of 2014. Today’s Track Marks focus on individual songs from albums that didn’t make our collective top five, but did appear on our individual best-album ballots.

Here’s how I heard about Strands of Oak and came to buy their newest album Heal:

1. A friend sent me a link to the song “Goshen ’97.”
2. I listened to the first thirty seconds of “Goshen ’97.”
3. I bought the album.

I’m not sure I’ve ever gone from literally never having heard of a band to buying their album that quickly. Such is the power of “Goshen ’97,” a song where the guy from Strand of Oaks sings about being a teenager, singing Smashing Pumpkins by himself, and futzing around with a tape machine. This sounds gently nostalgic on paper, whereas in the song it sounds approximately as triumphant as punching through a fucking volcano.

Due respect to the dude from Strand of Oaks, but the music video for this song is all wrong. One of the biggest opening stomps in any rock song I’ve heard in ages, and the video opens on an image of the dude sitting on his bed, smoking, mostly naked, and looking sad. Even when it cuts over to some roller-skaters, Mr. Oaks is still just sitting there like he’s fucking Sam Beam or something. I know the song goes, “I was lonely but I was having fun,” but the video seems like it only heard the first part. Eventually there’s some slow-mo thrashing, but no, I’m sorry, it’s not enough. This video does the worst thing any music video can do: it fails to capture exactly how I personally feel while listening to this song. For me, “Goshen ’97” is the sound of the exhilarating desperation of being alone. It’s just you, some guitars, and possibly the volcano you just punched through.

TRACK MARKS BEST OF 2014: “Water Fountain” by Tune Yards

This week, writers are recounting the best music of 2014. Today’s Track Marks focus on individual songs from albums that didn’t make our individual best-album lists.

It doesn’t seem right that when I think about tUnEyArDs, I think about Chuck Klosterman. When the band’s previous album landed at first place in the Village Voice music poll in early 2012, Klosterman wrote one of his patented meta-think pieces that’s mostly about how Klosterman thinks everyone else thinks, and to a lesser extent is about how this album and tUnEyArDs (referred to hereafter as Tune Yards) may well be forgotten as a novelty within a few years — not because Klosterman thinks it should be, of course, but because he understands how people think and remains, as ever, deeply in touch with that understanding at all times. He knows the pitfalls of indie-rock acclaim, and is just concerned about whether Tune Yards can ever match (or monetize) this early success. (He strikes such a faux-populist pose that he loses his grasp of apparently non-populist activities such as counting or even estimating; he opens by explaining that Tune Yards’ victory will mean something to “maybe 10,000 people.” Though record sales are notoriously difficult to come by compared to movie box office figures, it appears that whokill, the Tune Yards album in question, sold about 40,000 copies, meaning Klosterman (a.) was pre-supposing that only about 25% of the people who bought the Tuneyards album knew who Tune Yards was or (b.) was pre-supposing that only 25% of Tune Yards fans have heard of the Village Voice or know what a music poll is or (c.) did not even try to find out how many copies whokill sold because doing research isn’t populist.)

Other people have taken apart his reasoning more succinctly and intelligently than I can. But you know what’s even better proof than intelligent rebuttals of Klosterman’s stupid points? “Water Fountain,” by Tune Yards, maybe the most immediate song I heard in 2014. The rest of Nikki Nack is plenty good, too, but “Water Fountain” rollicks in a way unlike so much on the indie-rock landscape. It starts with the simplicity of a folk song (it even references a traditional tune called “Old Molly Hare”) but makes a beautiful tangle of chant, metaphor, and allusion as the drums keep clanging and a surprising number of verses accumulate. Anytime a song sounds like Graceland, Talking Heads, Bjork, and Busta Rhymes in equal measure, I’m probably going to get on board, and stay on board for a long while. If Chuck Klosterman and his imagined isn’t there with me, well, I can be thankful for small favors.

Paint’s Peeling: At a Rilo Kiley Show in 2003

Some of your beloved writers are going to see Jenny Lewis tonight. She will probably play Rilo Kiley songs. I first saw Rilo Kiley in 2003. This is a made-up story about other people seeing Rilo Kiley for the first time in 2003.

I’ve heard they cry at Bright Eyes shows. Not just from Emily. I did some research on the internet. It’s kind of embarrassing but I didn’t realize people my age didn’t really use newsgroups for this stuff anymore. The Bright Eyes newsgroup is mostly a bunch of assholes making pretty good points about how Bright Eyes sucks, and I don’t really have a problem with that except it seems like kind of a weird theme for the Bright Eyes newsgroup, and also makes me think, fuck me, is this how I sound on the Star Wars groups? So it makes sense that you have to hunting around LiveJournal and the Saddle Creek message boards and, for as long as your eyes can take it, MySpace to find a bunch of people – let’s be honest, mostly girls – crying their virtual tears over Conor Oberst and his stupid one-man band and haircut.

I don’t know if Rilo Kiley people are going to be the same as Bright Eyes people. I would think they’d be as different as Rilo Kiley sounds from Bright Eyes, which to me is pretty different, but apparently they have a lot of fans in common so maybe I’m the weird one. Anyway, research can’t hurt. I want to know what those internet-type people are like even if I’m not going to be one of them. Some of them sound okay.

I chatted with this one guy on AIM. He gave me the idea of what this Rilo Kiley show would be like. I mean, I’ve been to shows; I know what that’s like. I know the difference between hardcore bands playing the back room at the pool hall and the assholes from the seventies and eighties and today who play at Kalamazoo or Ann Arbor. But I don’t know: somehow the Saddle Creek bands seem different, like they’ll change the shapes of the rooms by entering them and bringing in whatever. The AIM guy backed that up, actually. He said it’s like nothing else although at that point I wasn’t one hundred percent sure what “it” was and I didn’t really want to ask.
Continue reading Paint’s Peeling: At a Rilo Kiley Show in 2003

Throwback Thursday: Halloween Edition

It’s the Thursday before Halloween, so it seems like a perfect time for the good people of to indulge in some Throwback Thursday nonsense. This may sound strange, but sometimes you don’t get the full picture of our writers just from their bio pictures. Herewith, pictures and stories of Halloween costumes past.
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The Ten Best Weezer Songs of the Past Decade

Weezer is the Star Wars prequels of rock and roll: objects of loathing born from young love, recipients of vitriol presumed to be deserved and, beyond the affection of a few die hard nutcases, universal. This is hyperbolic, of course: a rock band “no one” likes can no more survive for decades than a movie series “everyone” hates can gross $300 million domestic every time out. But it’s inarguable that Weezer has, like the Star Wars prequels I so enjoy, disappointed a lot of people, and unlike Attack of the Clones, I would not give any of Weezer’s albums of the past decade three and a half stars out of four for the sheer enjoyability of the good stuff.

Also unlike Star Wars, which had three-year gaps (at least in terms of movies) for opinions to percolate (and, I think, sometimes nervously reverse themselves into scorn), Weezer has absorbed these negative reactions via not scarcity, but abundance. The band came back in 2001 after nearly five years of inactivity, and they haven’t been away for so long since. Though their 2005 nadir Make Believe was bookended by three-year breaks, they’ve also had major productivity spurts, most notably in the 2008-2010 period where they released three studio albums and one cast-off collection in less than four years.

Conventional wisdom says these records mostly just upped the ante on how bad Weezer could let down its dwindling fanbase, and true that none of these records or what I’d call “good,” though a few flirt with “pretty good” or “OK.” But as the band prepares to release its umpteenth for-real-this-time return to form, Everything Will Be Alright in the End (out tomorrow), it’s worth noting that the past decade of Weezer has not yielded nonstop dross. In fact, there are some pretty great Weezer songs adrift in the seas of mediocrity, waiting for attentive, non-angry listeners to rescue them. This is what I intend to do here. I’m limiting this to a list of the Ten Best Weezer Songs of the Past Decade and, as such, not including their post-comeback records, 2001’s Green Album or 2002’s Maladroit — because those albums are, as a whole, good. Not great like the first two, but good enough to listen to without much skipping – really, the best halves of Green and Maladroit could combine to form a record nearly as good as Blue or Pinkerton. And the songs that follow, well, they could probably form a record nearly as good as that one. Maybe some of the poptimism afforded derivative Top 40 songs might (in a Weezer-friendly rockist fashion) be applied to your old pals from ’94.
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The SportsAlcohol Podcast: Sunday Morning Quaterbacking Saturday Night Live

Many staffers and contributors are united in their hardcore Saturday Night Live fandom. The show, somewhat erratic even in its best years, has gone through some transitional pains over the last year or two, as beloved cast members have departed, new cast members have stepped in, and others have been let go. Season 40 began with yet more cast tinkering, especially around Weekend Update. Marisa, Jesse, Nathaniel, and Michael discussed the season premiere immediately after it aired, touching upon favorite cast members, the new guys, Chris Pratt’s hosting skills, Arianda Grande and the state of Saturday Night Live music booking in general, dream hosts for the upcoming season, and plenty more. We’ll be checking back in with Saturday Night Live periodically during the season, and offering plenty of more hot takes timed to its 40th anniversary season.

We are up to four different ways to listen to a SportsAlcohol podcast:
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We are also finally on iTunes!
You can download the mp3 of this episode directly here.
As always, if you are very lazy, like Kristen Wiig recurring character lazy, you can just listen in the player below.

Photo credit: Dana Edelson/NBC

TRACK MARKS: “The Queen’s Nose” by Slow Club

I have a weird relationship with good singing. My official stance is that it’s unnecessary. When American Idol became the biggest TV show in the country and a few of its winners or runners-up became big (or at least medium-sized) stars, I was confused: didn’t we all sort of agree around 1960 or so that technically impressive singing was, if not entirely outmoded, at least somewhat limiting? Obviously there were exceptions like Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston, but in the American Idol universe, there was mainly Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston, and this wasn’t the world of pop music that I recognized. Maybe it was because when I was growing up, I didn’t really know anyone who listened to Mariah or Whitney, beyond the occasional parent — and not even cool parents, parents who seemed sort of at a loss for how to respond to the question mark of new music made after 1975 or so.

So generally, yes: I pledge my allegiance to Bob Dylan and the wonderful range of voices who are allowed to sing rock-and-roll type songs. Trilling and melisma and whatever else fall far behind the idiosyncrasy of the voice, the smartness of the songwriting, the catchiness of the melody — almost anything but Broadway-style singing quality.

And yet: sometimes, when I’m not expecting it, big vocals really hit me. The marathon of key changes that close Beyonce’s “Love On Top,” for example, much more a technical feat than a songwriting one. Or take Slow Club’s “The Queen’s Nose,” a track off their recent record Complete Surrender. It has a lot going for it, but then, so do most Slow Club songs. The group’s core members, Rebecca Taylor and Charles Watson from Sheffield, UK, work together beautifully as a duo: they trade off songwriting and vocals, drifting apart for some tunes and snapping back together for others. But there’s something especially massive about “The Queen’s Nose” that I never could have expected from listening to the sweet strains of “When I Go,” the first song off their debut.

Maybe it’s that exact progression that makes it so thrilling: Slow Club started off as a strummy, excitable folk-pop act and each progressive album has moved further away from that while retaining their generally clean, earnest, often-rueful songwriting style. The song itself progresses, too. It starts with simple, slowdance-y guitar-playing and a plaintive if soulful vocal from Rebecca. Horns kick in, and the vocal gets a little louder, but it’s two minutes in before Rebecca is holler-singing with the horns swelling in the background, and the song keeps strategically dropping out instruments before sliding them back in. It’s halfway done before you realize it’s becoming a girl-group-style torcher, and the final build to Rebecca’s climactic, almost Broadway-level cry of “I can’t go on/living these songs,” with horns and guitar blasting behind her voice like fireworks, is an unlikely candidate for my favorite minute of music this year.

When the band performed “The Queen’s Nose” this week at the Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan, they didn’t have those glorious horns at their disposal. But they did have Rebecca Taylor, and she confirmed — all night but especially during this song — that she sometimes is, as Karen O sang, bigger than the sound. I don’t mean to discount Slow Club’s collective acumen as musicians (both Rebecca and Charles play multiple instruments). In fact, Taylor uses her voice as an instrument, and just like you don’t want your guitar constantly squalling with feedback or engaged in elaborate fingerpicking, you (by which I mean I) don’t want your big-voiced singers using every opportunity to vocalize with precision. On Complete Surrender, “The Queen’s Nose” is preceded by the aching balladry of “Number One” and the girl-group-at-the-disco title track. Live, it was followed by a rollicking “Our Most Brilliant Friends.” Everything made everything sound better.